How She Leads: Leisha John of Ernst & Young

How She Leads

How She Leads: Leisha John of Ernst & Young

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz.com that spotlights the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Leisha John, Americas director of environmental sustainability at Ernst & Young, who is responsible for developing and implementing strategies to reduce Ernst & Young's impact on the environment.

With 152,000 people around the world, Ernst & Young is one of the world’s largest professional services organizations, and a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services.

The firm has no shortage of programs that support the advancement of sustainability initiatives. To start, the Climate Change & Sustainability Services branch helps companies develop comprehensive climate change strategies to reduce impact and consumption, thereby saving money and managing risk.

The firm also regularly publishes studies on the progress and nature of sustainable business, such as the recent "Six Growing Trends on Corporate Sustainability" conducted in collaboration with GreenBiz Group.

This week EY released their latest report, "Working Together" (PDF), which details how companies can reap the benefits of environmental incentives with help from tax experts.

In today’s interview, John shares the story of her professional journey to a role in environmental sustainability. She also talks with Albanese about the important connection between financial and tax services and sustainable business development.

Maya Albanese: To start, it would be interesting to hear more about how you merged a tax services career with the sustainability role that you have now.

Leisha John: Typically, you may not think to find an accountant working in environmental sustainability, but I actually had the perfect foundation to move into this role. I’ve been working with Ernst & Young LLP for 25 years, which has allowed me to work in many areas of the company, such as process re-engineering, program management, strategy and innovation. I had worked on many large-scale initiatives that involved change management factors in my previous roles. Given my business experience and knowledge of the company, I knew the moment I saw this job that I wanted to apply for it. 

We have a network of grassroots green teams called "EcoCare," and they have been building awareness of green initiatives across our 80 offices in the United States since 2002. They put forward the business case to have this national CSO role created in the company in 2008. 

MA: Was there an "aha" moment for you when you decided it was time to move into environmental services?

LJ: It was a journey for me to get into this role, rather than a moment. Living a greener lifestyle has always been important to me, and one of the most important things for us as a firm is to be credible in the eyes of our clients and the public. We need to be as green or greener than the companies we are helping through our Climate Change & Sustainability Services practice.

MA: How many employees at EY have sustainability directly tied to their job titles and descriptions? 

LJ: As director of Americas environmental sustainability, I am responsible for 180 offices, and the lead contact in the U.S. for sustainability initiatives.  For internal greening initiatives, I have champions in several departments across the firm, such as real estate, procurement, facilities, meetings and event services, etc. These champions wear an additional sustainability hat as part of their role. They are important liaisons that I have into these various enterprise groups.

We also have an environmental manager and global corporate sustainability leader in our U.K. office. Then there is our Climate Change & Sustainability Services team with over 700 people fully immersed in providing sustainability services to our clients globally. They are really an extended team of mine. For example, they are helping measure and report our carbon footprint through CDP, LEED certify our New Jersey office and develop our sustainability report.

MA: Why are you passionate about green building initiatives in particular?

LJ: This is a personal passion of mine. It turns out that one-third of EY’s energy usage is related to our offices (the other two-thirds is business travel), so green building is a way that we can have a very meaningful impact on our overall energy consumption and carbon footprint. I also use my accounting skills to volunteer as a treasurer for the U.S. Green Building Council USGBC South Florida Chapter. And my husband is also a LEED-AP who teaches corporate sustainability and LEED for Everblue.edu.

MA: There are a lot of accreditations in the job market these days. Would you recommend the LEED-AP program to other professionals?

LJ: I received LEED-AP accreditation when I first assumed the CSO role. At that time, it was the most recognized credential at EY and among our clients. The program involved a broad understanding of sustainability principles that I can even integrate into my own life and home. The program has especially helped me develop a robust LEED building strategy at EY. 

By end of 2013, 50 percent of our personnel in the U.S. will be working in LEED certified offices. This involves a combination of signing new leases on LEED certified buildings, and our CCaSS team working with the LEED Existing Building criteria to improve our NJ office, where we are the master tenant on the lease.  We are also following the LEED commercial interiors criteria for certification of our new office spaces.

MA: Is your role as CSO about internal or external stakeholder engagement?

LJ: We released a global survey with GreenBiz about growing trends in corporate sustainability, and employees are emerging as a significant stakeholder group, second only to customers, in sustainability initiatives. Our goal is to have a leading people culture. There is a lot of pressure now to engage our people, because a huge part of our population is under 30 years of age.  They are coming from green universities, and they’re demanding to work for a socially and environmentally responsible firm.

MA: Effective sustainable developments rely on multi-stakeholder engagement. What are some of most effective collaborations EY has with external partners? 

LJ: Our flagship program is with Earthwatch, who we’ve worked with over the past three years. Our best and brightest talent participates in scientific research expeditions to Costa Rica, Brazil, and India that help to embed environmentally and economically sustainable business practices. Earthwatch really takes the time to understand the talent at EY and finds opportunities to engage with local entrepreneurs. The program is open to all staff under the manager level, so generally newer employees, and we receive a ton of applications. It ends up being a great recruiting tool.  And when people go on these expeditions from our CCaSS practice, it helps inform the work they perform for our clients.

We also support the USGBC, and in many of our local offices we’re starting to help with their green local schools initiatives. We’re working with the Global Reporting Initiative framework to publish our sustainability report as well. For the past three years, we’ve been publishing our carbon footprint reports with the Carbon Disclosure Project. 

MA: You have been working on carbon footprinting for a few years -- what are some of the challenges and lessons learned while measuring carbon at EY?

LJ: I’d say we’re getting better year over year, but it’s never perfect. I think the biggest challenge is the sheer number of offices we have: 180 across the Americas, and all our spaces are leased so sometimes we have difficulty getting accurate energy data. We are also tracking the business travel for all of our employees (45,000 across the Americas).

One recent success is that we’ve loaded all our carbon data into dashboards, so we have all that data stored and accessible now. This has enhanced our transparency and accountability. Facilities managers are more accountable for the quality of data, and dashboards allow them to compare their offices against each other. This creates a healthy competition and makes them want to ensure we have the most accurate data.

MA: Where do you see the most interest right now the company to be more transparent and accountable?

LJ: I report to the CFO of the Americas, so I know that I have the commitment of our executive committee. Most of the infrastructure groups like real estate, facilities and IT report up to her too. I work on operational greening and building credibility with our clients, making sure that we are “walking the talk.” I also have a strong collaborative relationship with the corporate responsibility team.

MA: So then the CFO is also a notable female leader at EY …

LJ: Yes, and in addition to the CFO, our director of corporate responsibility is also a woman. The CFO is an important voice in sustainability now at the C-suite level, and that is why I report to the CFO. Finance understands the importance of ROI and helps to vet sustainability initiatives, and, hey, they control the purse strings.

MA: Your website states "tax is a catalyst for change." Exactly how is it?

LJ: As accountants and a professional services firm, we realize that tax credits and other incentives can drive green initiatives. We see more and more of our clients more involved in sustainability. We help them make the business case for sustainability and calculate the ROI and impact of their initiatives.

MA: What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in this role at EY?

LJ: I am proud that we’ve created a truly holistic strategy, and that our initiatives run the gamut from smaller efforts like the total elimination of Styrofoam coffee cups in our U.S. offices, to the significant greening of our data center by EPA’s Energy Star criteria. One thing that has been very helpful is that we have centralized procurement, so we are able to track our paper purchases, for example, and keep a dashboard with dozens of metrics to track our year-over-year progress. Then we can calculate things like how much trash we are keeping out of landfills with our initiatives.

MA: What makes for an ideal candidate for this role?

LJ: First and foremost, it is important to have good business acumen. If you were coming from logistics, facilities management, marketing, or PR, you’d want to make sure you have the business foundation to manage money (generate revenue and operational savings), mitigate risk, and meet shareholders expectations. Someone in this role has to address all these drivers, and do it in the credible way.  And it is always really important to personally walk the talk; you have to be a role model for your people.  I drive a hybrid, a green one. I subscribe to a Community Supported Agriculture [program], and I’ve embraced a plant-based diet. I have my own vegetable garden, rain barrels for storm water collection, native landscaping, and low-flow toilets at my home, etc. …

MA: Need I ask … do you love your job?

LJ: I absolutely love my job. It is a culmination of all my skills: my business background, strategy and problem solving skills, and people skills -- you really must have the ability to influence and inspire others in this role. I get to work on the core business side and operations side, and I get to work with corporate responsibility and community engagement teams. I get to make a difference every single day, so it really doesn’t get any better than that!

Photo courtesy of Ernst & Young.

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